The state did rise from its 39th place ranking in 2012, but otherwise the 2015 tally hardly changed from how New Mexico fared in the inaugural investigation: a score of 62. The two scores aren’t directly comparable, however because of changes to improve and update the project and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
A wide gap
What really stands out is that of all 50 states, New Mexico has the widest gulf between the laws that are on the books and the vigor with which they’re implemented: the so-called “enforcement gap.” The striking enforcement gap in the Land of Enchantment punctuates a broader conclusion: when it comes to ethics and campaign finance, it can be pretty easy for bad actors to get away with breaking the rules in New Mexico.
For example, the State Integrity Investigation found that New Mexico has pretty muscular laws guaranteeing the public’s right to know. But there is no hard deadline to produce records, and the attorney general’s office (which provides legal representation to public bodies) historically hasn’t made enforcement a priority. The AG’s office rarely levies fines, instead relying on members of the public to hire lawyers and sue. And so the government can effectively skirt the law simply by repeatedly ignoring requesters and delaying their responses.
When it comes to campaign finance oversight, the state Legislature has failed to address serious shortcomings that came about as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and other recent decisions, meaning vast amounts of money flow virtually unimpeded — and untraceable — into the political system. In New Mexico, super PACs and other outside groups can operate with extraordinary freedom because although they are technically prohibited from “coordination” with candidates, state law doesn’t define what coordination is. So these groups raise and spend money on politics with little fear of legal repercussions.
For example, in 2014, Gov. Susana Martinez’s operations director, who is also married to the governor’s deputy chief of staff, stepped down to run New Mexico Competes, a nonprofit effectively supporting the governor. The group ran radio ads praising Martinez and sent mailers criticizing a school superintendent who had irked her. The previous year, Democrats had asked the IRS to investigate the group, saying it was “illegally coordinating with and attempting to conceal campaign contributions on behalf of New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez with the intent of violating New Mexico law limiting campaign contributions to candidates.”
At the time, the group’s executive director told the New Mexican that it was a nonpartisan educational group and that it did not “advocate for or against the election of any public official.”
Like its predecessors, the current secretary of state administration, which oversees campaign finance, has said its goal is “education” rather than enforcement, largely turning a blind eye to politicians and candidates who break the law.
Most importantly, the State Integrity Investigation shows that New Mexico fails spectacularly at ethics enforcement, ranking 45th. Supporters of creating an independent ethics commission have for years pointed to the success of the Judicial Standards Commission, an independent state agency that handles allegations of misconduct against state and local judges. Nothing like it exists for the legislative or executive branches, meaning there is effectively no transparent, public mechanism for investigating and resolving ethics complaints. The state also ranked near the bottom of all states in terms of holding members of those two branches accountable to the public.
For example, in 2014, state Sen. Phil Griego orchestrated legislative approval for and then voted to approve the sale of a piece of state property in Santa Fe. Just one month later, Griego, who is also a real estate agent, then took a $50,000 commission for brokering the deal on behalf of the business that bought the property. He was allowed to serve for eight months after the allegations were made public, and he then resigned rather than face any reprimand. Griego admitted he violated the constitution, but said it was unintentional. The day of his resignation, leadership of both parties and both houses of the Legislature released statements saying they had no comment — and explaining that they’d asked their members not to comment either. Immediately after resigning, Griego began drawing a legislative pension of $1,300 per month.
Good government groups such as Common Cause have been trying to persuade the state Legislature to create an independent ethics commission for more than a decade, but lawmakers from both parties have repeatedly declined to act. The scandals involving the secretary of state and Griego prompted renewed calls for an ethics commission, but if similar cases in the past didn’t persuade the Legislature of the need for one, it seems unlikely these recent developments will turn the tide.